AGM Story

“Shopping Our Values” – Why Alternative Gifting?

Rebecca Watts Hull

My earliest memory of Fair Trade is from November 1974. I was 9 years old (with siblings aged 14, 12, 8, and 4) and I remembering hearing chaos (different from the normal chaos) downstairs. I cautiously ventured toward the noise and found our family dining room table and leaf extensions completed covered in handcrafts from around the world. My mom and several  other women from our church had taken over our dining room to tag and organize gifts for Lakewood Presbyterian Church’s first Alternate Christmas Sale. At that time, the sources of Fair Trade “gifts that make a difference” were largely Appalachian cooperatives and global handcrafts distributed by two organizations: Self Help Crafts (whose name was later changed to Ten Thousand Villages) and SERRV.

My mother, Charline Watts, was inspired to start the practice of Alternative Gift Markets at church by the book Alternate Christmas Catalog by Robert Kochtitzky. In fact, the idea was so new (in Cleveland, anyway) that her group traveled around to many churches throughout the metro region during Advent, setting up “pop-up” markets. After five years of this approach (which was a lot of work), in 1979 they founded the One World Shop in Lakewood with seed funding from the Western Reserve Presbytery, a permanent storefront dedicated to helping people “shop with their conscience” (still open today, although a few miles west of the original shop).

“Shopping our values” is an idea that really resonates with many of us at NDPC. And I’m happy to report that Fair Trade and alternative giving options have expanded significantly since those early, faith-based markets in the 1970s. Try an online search for Alternative Gifts or Fair Trade and you will find more ideas for responsible shopping and more vendors with Fair Trade certification than you could possibly explore. According to Fair Trade America, sales of certified Fair Trade products surpassed $11 billion in 2018. At the same time, this explosion of options also can create confusion, and there certainly are vendors that market social and environmental responsibility without the certification or evidence to back it up. So, I thought it might be worth sharing some background on Fair Trade certification, other options for shopping in ways that align with your values, and strategies for evaluating a vendor when you think it sounds promising but you would like to know more. Please read more on our website at http://www.ndpc.org/agm

How did Fair Trade begin?

For a clear and concise history of Fair Trade, I recommend the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) website. About 15 years before my mom’s group was promoting Fair Trade at church Alternative Christmas sales, the first storefront opened in the U.S. selling fairly traded crafts. Around the same time, shops in several European countries were beginning to market fairly-traded crafts as well as promoting items made by refugees, with support from Oxfam, and cane sugar from smallholders in the Global South. Coffee entered the Fair Trade arena in 1973 with a shipment from Guatemala to a group in the Netherlands. Socially conscious consumers responded with enthusiasm, and over time Fair Trade food items expanded to tea, cocoa, sugar, wine, fruit juices, nuts, rice and spices.

In the past decade, the variety of Fair Trade clothing has expanded dramatically, including clothing lines of some mainstream retailers. I remember searching through the COOP America (now Green America) website when my kids were small, in search of clothing and shoes for them, and feeling frustrated by how hard it was to find any information on labor conditions for most retailers. While horrific tragedies like the 2012 fire in a garment factory in Bangladesh bring fleeting attention to “sweatshop” conditions, clothing retailers still do not have to disclose to consumers anything more than the country where the item is assembled. Fair Trade certification is one of the only tools we have for “shopping our values” when it comes to clothing. And today, due to a growing chorus of consumers demanding social and environmental responsibility, you can now find just about anything in your wardrobe from online retailers with Fair Trade certification. Try searching for the item you are looking for and also include “Fair Trade” in the search.

What difference does Fair Trade certification make?

There are several different forms of Fair Trade certification, in the U.S. and globally, and their criteria different somewhat. In general, the term “Fair Trade” means that workers are ensured of a living wage (a minimum price per pound, in the case of coffee, providing a crucial cushion against volatile global markets); that working conditions are safe and healthy; that there is oversight and transparency in working conditions; and that there is attention to sustainability—social, environmental, and economic—throughout production and distribution. Some Fair Trade certified vendors, including Deans Beans, the coffee provider chosen by NDPC’s coffee buying group, go well beyond minimum Fair Trade standards and works in partnership with growers on community economic development.

For producers, Fair Trade provides an opportunity for farmers and artisans to earn a living wage from what they do, and a space for local communities to develop and thrive on their own terms. Many Fair Trade products include tags with the name of the person behind the product, reflecting a human-scaled exchange in a global market, and one with direct impact. A visit to the Women’s Bean Project or Dean’s Beans websites illustrates the very important place Alternative Gift Giving can have on the lives of those involved. In some cases, the impact is even more dramatic—the growth of Fair Trade certification for chocolate was a response to growing awareness of exploitative child labor in cocoa-producing countries. Fair Trade chocolate is now available as a choice in most supermarkets—look for specific reference to Fair trade certification on the label (note: organic does not guarantee Fair Trade). Divine chocolate takes the Fair Trade relationship even further by including the Kuapa Kokoo Farmers’ Union, a co-operative of 100,000 cocoa farmers in Ghana, as shareholders.

What if a product I love says it treats producers fairly but there is no mention of Fair Trade?

The expansion of Fair Trade and sustainable products also has expanded “green-washing” and claims of social responsibility that do not hold up under scrutiny. For example, recently I noticed a cat product online that advertised eco-friendly production and boasted that the company “helps women in poor communities.” Despite those claims, there were no certifications listed on the website, so I emailed and asked for more information. No response. I cannot think of a single case, actually, when I contacted a company for more information and was reassured by what I learned. Typically, a company that is deeply committed to Fair Trade principles and has the resources to create a sophisticated website will provide detailed information about their commitment on the site. There are plenty of retailers who do not share that deep commitment but have figured out there are a lot of socially and environmentally conscious consumers. As a result, they will make vague references to making a difference, or helping communities, or protecting the Earth. But if there is no evidence of certification and the company is unwilling to respond to an inquiry, that likely indicates the commitment does not extend very far.

What about buying locally?

Certification is just one way of increasing transparency, and it works well for products that are produced a long way away from us. Thankfully, local businesses and farmers provide another form of transparency—the ability to actually see the places where goods are produced, talk with families and workers, and visit farms. In recent years, as the number of entrepreneurial businesses launched by Clarkston residents who came to the U.S. as refugees has grown rapidly, NDPC’s Alternative Gift Market has included more and more of these local vendors. This form of “shopping our values” relies on first-hand transparency, through relationships built by members of NDPC. A related approach, circulating in many circles as one step toward anti-racism, is choosing local, Black-owned businesses; an online search will turn up multiple lists of recommendations in and around Atlanta.

Making purchasing decisions that align with our values has gotten a little easier, but it is still not as straightforward as it could and (in my view) should be. Until we can rely on greater transparency in labeling on all products, and consistently just and sustainable production standards around the world, Fair Trade and other forms of certification can help us “shop our values.” None of us manages to pay attention to production methods with each and every purchase, every single day. But we can do our best to take advantage of Fair Trade and other opportunities to better align our shopping with our values all year long, not just at the Alternative Gift Market in December. Happy gifting!

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